It’s a cliché that therapists often look to a person’s past for clues as so what makes them tick in the here and now. It’s also a cliché that people often reflexively view this approach as self-indulgent and needlessly Freudian.
The truth is that who we are is the sum total of our life experiences and the ways in which our brains interpret those experiences and ascribe to them value and meaning. In that context, painful, abusive, neglectful or traumatic life experiences cannot help but have an impact on the people we become as adults, whether we are consciously aware of those fundamental roots or not.
Those events are particularly impactful during the most formative years, when the brain is growing and our sense of ourselves and the world is being formulated. It’s as though we’re a structure being built and our wiring is being put in. Painful or damaging experiences can affect that wiring in often profound and long-standing ways.
Generally speaking, we have little awareness of the building blocks that comprise our current selves. Life just moves on and evolves and we are who we are in any given moment.
Too much introspection and analysis is viewed by many as indulgent and self-absorbed. If your life isn’t as you’d like it to be, change it. Don’t look for excuses or people to blame.
This is especially true of our view of our parents. People are powerfully motivated to protect their parents from blame or responsibility for their current circumstances.
They go so far as to block out entire parts of their upbringing, describing otherwise painful or traumatic early years as idyllic or, at the very least, fine and good enough. What they miss is that it’s not about blame.
Most of our parents did the best they could, but some still had powerfully and deeply negative impacts on us that cannot be ignored, no matter how hard we try.
In my psychotherapy practice, there may be no more prevalent or persistent subject that I have observed revealing itself than that of current struggles whose ultimate source lies in past traumas, whether they be abuse, neglect or loss. Hearing such stories on such a consistent basis renders it difficult to ignore the impact that the past has on the present.
Adults often find themselves struggling to form healthy attachments with others, especially romantic partners. They wonder why anyone would love or want them and some who actually do show interest are pushed away.
Sometimes, adults reach heights of accomplishment and professional achievement and still find themselves deeply unhappy. Still others are relentlessly self-judging and carry around with them voices in their heads that spout critical and demeaning bile at them. Those people learn to turn off emotions and even dissociate from reality — a skill they learned as children trying to cope with events they couldn’t endure or comprehend.
The problem for adults is that such solutions may be ingenious coping strategies for a child with limited experience or life skills, let alone a fully developed brain, but they are quite counterproductive in adulthood.
When a child suffers, the proverbial wiring is laid and a distorted narrative is formed about the nature of the world and where the child fits in it, if at all.
The kicker is that there is no natural point in life where the adult realizes they’ve been living a child’s narrative and decides to formulate an adult story that is more sophisticated, thoughtful and kind to self. So, we live adult lives through a child’s lens.
The key to formulating a healthy adult narrative is to acknowledge the experience of the child and, it should be said, to see the child as a child— innocent, inexperienced, vulnerable, not responsible for what happens to them.
That’s a difficult process because, for most adult survivors of childhood trauma, they are that child.
They carry that child’s self-hatred and judgment into adulthood and often look at that child negatively.
When a person can see their child self the way they see other children — completely and undeniably innocent — they can start to view them with a new compassion, which opens the door to looking at themselves with more compassion as well.
As psychotherapist Nancy Napier notes: “Each time you choose to deal with your feelings in healthy ways, to remove yourself from abusive situations or to take some time to get in touch with the memories, feelings, thoughts or body sensations associated with some past hurt, your inner strength increases.
“You add to this foundation of strength every time you make the choice to reclaim your feelings, each time you acknowledge and own what happened to you and how it has affected your life.”
This journey is very difficult to embark upon alone. The self-judging person is unlikely to see a deficit in self acceptance. This is where good psychotherapy comes in.
Therapists can help the individual reconnect with the child’s experience and see how it’s affecting their current daily life. The pain of the past doesn’t have to keep us from our best lives. Healing is very much possible.
As Leonard Cohen so beautifully sang, “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”
Doron Gold is a registered social worker who is also a former practising lawyer. He works with lawyers and law students in his role as a staff clinician and presenter with the Member Assistance Program as well as with members of the general public in his private psychotherapy practice. He’s available at dorongold.com.